Will Ferrell is back on-target in the dumb movie sweepstakes as Brennan Huff an over-grown overly sensitive son who has never bothered to move out of single mom’s (Mary Steenburgen) house even though he’s 40. When she meets falls in love with and marries an older doctor (Richard Jenkins) all before the opening credits are over Brennan must move into his new stepfather’s home where--you guessed it--39 year-old loser and would-be musician Dale Doback (John C. Reilly) has been living with Dad all these years as well. The new siblings who give stunted growth a whole new definition bunk together like 10-year olds with an instant rivalry that causes havoc in the household. Soon they find themselves birds of the same feather when fed-up dad announces he is selling the house and going on an around-the-world cruise with his new bride. The hapless pair are ordered to find decent jobs and a new place to live--a prospect neither relishes. After an earlier misstep this year with the inane Semi-Pro Ferrell is back in his comfort zone and finding new sparks opposite Reilly who despite the failure of his recent starring comedy Walk Hard continues to show natural comedic abilities. The two are fun to watch as they mine a lot of laughs playing imbecilic but lovable adolescent middle-aged men--Peter Pans who just never grew up. Still it’s the supporting cast that really shines. Jenkins--enjoying the best year of his career especially with his stellar turn in The Visitor is now complementing it with his riotous portrait of a put-upon dad dealing with a couple of morons who have overstayed their welcome by about 20 years. Steenburgen manages to invest the rather colorless mother role with dignity even earning a couple of laughs on her own. Adam Scott as Ferrell’s real-estate mogul brother is consistently fun particularly in leading a family sing-a-long while driving to bro’s house. Also of note Kathryn Hahn as his mousy but extremely kinky wife who tries to get down and dirty with Reilly.
Ferrell’s writing partner Adam McKay is not only co-scripting again but back behind the camera guiding Ferrell’s and Reilly’s on-screen nuttiness. Adam McKay an SNL veteran who was responsible for two of Ferrell’s biggest hits Anchorman and Talladega Nights knows from experience exactly how to take these over-the-top situations and wring every last laugh out of them. Movies like this are hit and miss so give McKay credit for hitting more than he misses. Each actor even the lesser-billed ones have their moments to shine and it’s a nice tribute to McKay’s laid back direction that none of them bellyflop. The premise of Step Brothers clearly presented some potentially rich comic possibilities and McKay and company uncover most of them. Certainly the film should strike a responsive chord with those faced with grown kids either coming back home to live or never leaving in the first place--if not quite to THESE extremes.
Even if you’re one of the 19 other people in a competitive internship at Dean Witter with Chris Gardner (Will Smith) you gotta root for the guy. Life’s beaten him up but not got him down. He lugs his computer-monitor-sized bone density scanner all over San Francisco hoping to sell just one to make ends meet for his family—but nobody’s buying. As his wife’s (Thandie Newton) discontentment nears a boiling point Chris accepts an internship at financial institution Dean Witter—six months without pay and only one of the 20 applicants will ultimately get a job out of it. This sends her packing. She leaves Chris and their son Christopher (Jaden Smith) to fend for themselves at which point they get evicted. It’s the tip of the iceberg because over the course of Chris’ penniless pursuit of the Dean Witter job (and “happyness”) he and Christopher will get by sleeping in homeless shelter--and even in train-station bathrooms. Chris had always vowed to never leave his son and he keeps his promise but there’s no guarantee that his perseverance will pay off. Except for the fact that Happyness is “INSPIRED BY A TRUE STORY”! Will Smith is getting all the awards buzz but it’s his real-life son Jaden who transcends all expectations in Happyness. Jaden’s never acted in a movie before and it’s safe to assume that because of his father's long-running movie stardom he could not have grown up in a more different environment than that of his character. Which makes it all the more amazing for this 8-year-old Hollywood tyke to grasp even if coincidentally the plight of a nomadic urban child. The best part about little Jaden is that his performance doesn’t seem robotic like so many child actors who are already too "seasoned" for their own good. Aside from the expected cutesy laughs there’s genuine spontaneity in Jaden’s performance obviously thanks to the fact that he’s acting opposite his dad. Papa Smith gives what’s probably his best performance to date although he's had a career of primarily action roles that weren't exactly conducive to a skills showcase. He delivers the goods here—as seen in the tear-rific trailer—as a man whose whole life is his child but frankly the tears evoked might be too few for Oscar’s liking. Newton (Crash) in a small role is terribly miscast but Mr. and Mr. Smith dominate the screen anyway. Even with the studio flaunting the movie’s "Inspired by a true story..." tagline like a badge of honor—as studios tend to do—and this being the holiday season and all Italian director Gabriele Muccino expends way too much effort into the crowd-pleasing/feel-good aspects of Happyness. The happy ending everyone already knows about should be saccharine enough. Granted this is why a studio loves true stories—one that begins on a low note ends on a really high note and fluctuates all over the radar in between—and it may make the film more pleasing to its targeted mainstream audiences but Muccino and writer Steve Conrad (The Weather Man) really take the gloss factor much too far. In this case they essentially try to tell us a mostly sad story but will not let us feel sad. For instance during what could be very dark reflective scenes potentially connecting with viewers who have struggled through similar problems music befitting a children’s tale overtakes the would-be drama so we don’t ever feel too badly for Chris. It’s nice that the director cares so much for us but oftentimes the best directors are the ones who show an audience tough love.